Bakery bulletin by Philippa Kelly: What did the Romans ever do for us? Well they invented the birthday cake (probably)

Birthday cake by Sander van der Wel
Birthday cake by Sander van der Wel

On the fifth of March in 1750, the first American thespians attempted to perform one of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m so glad I wasn’t yet born.

On the fifth of March in 1946, Churchill gave his Iron Curtain speech, thus cementing the term into our language.

Much as I’d love to have met the guy, I’m pleased to have not lived during his government.

Fifth of March again, but further forward in time - Patsy Cline died in 1963. You might think I’m Crazy, but when I hear Patsy, I Fall To Pieces and feel like Walkin’ After Midnight before having Sweet Dreams.

Imagine That. Seriously, are there no other Patsy fans? You guys suck.

Flash back a decade to the fifth of March in 1953, and you could watch the death of Joseph Stalin. Happy days.

Eva Mendes is almost the only person of interest to have been born on the fifth of March. Almost, but not quite. Happy birthday to me.

Prior to the Happy Birthday song (1900s), nobody actually said Happy Birthday.

I don’t know what they said instead, maybe nothing, but it must have been a bit awkward and kind of rude. “It’s my birthday.” “Good for you.”

The birthday cake is, like almost everything else, a Roman thing. As per usual, the Greeks reckon it was their Ancient ancestors, but that gets complicated so let’s give it to the Romans.

The word for “cake” and the word for “bread” were interchangeable in most European languages, which says a lot for the quality of their cakes.

It wasn’t until the 15th century that a German bakery saw the potential of offering slightly fancier bready cakes for their customers’ birthdays that the proper birthday cake as we know it really gained popularity.

In the 17th century, the cakes became more elaborate. Not quite at the silver balls phase, but layers, icing, and primitive decorations.

The Industrial Revolution brought advanced production techniques and more readily available ingredients, and these cakes were now available for the masses, and not just the super-rich and frivolous.

These days, every Jayden-Lee, Mason, and Reece can have a caterpillar cake, and there’s a brightly coloured effigy of a character I don’t recognise from a TV show I’ve never heard of atop a sponge that will satisfy every Keeley, Stacey, and Courtney. Innit.

The candles is where it becomes complicated. We all know you’re supposed to put in one candle for each year, and maybe one for luck.

The reality is that you might find one in that drawer of pointless stuff in the kitchen, and just shove that in on its own, or you won’t be able to find one so you’ll buy a pack of those pink or blue stripey ones and shove them all in regardless of the recipient’s age.

Either way, you’ll never find the matches and you’ll wish you still smoked. That’s not even the complicated bit - it’s the origin of the candle tradition that’s plagued with vagueness.

The Greeks have a theory involving a goddess, naturally, but it’s no Orpheus and Eurydice so I’ll spare you.

There’s the whole Pagan thing involving magic and whatnot, a Swiss superstition, and a German version. The Germans’ history of birthday candles is typically well-documented and painfully long-winded, so let’s just assume it’s true and move on.

If you think the supermarket birthday cake offering is bad, be thankful that you’re not Chinese - lotus paste filled buns shaped and dyed to resemble peaches is the traditional birthday “cake” in China. Why? No, seriously, why?

In Korea, it’s birthday seaweed soup; in Russia it’s birthday fruit pie with a greeting carved into the crust like creepy graffiti etched into a tree in a horror movie, and in Sweden they put their national flag on the cake in place of an edible picture of One Direction.

Thirty years ago on the fifth of March, I graced the world with my presence. On the fifth of March this year, I look forward to being graced with presents.

No supermarket in the world offers a vegan birthday cake, and nobody wants to bake a cake for a bakery owner, so it’s happy birthday to me.

I will blow out my candles and make a wish for world peace. Yeah right - I want a Land Rover Discovery.